Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor
One gets an odd feeling, reading online comments by friends and colleagues that decry the opinions and, alas, the character of one of the first friends you made at college. It’s not that people should never express their disagreements heartily, far from it; it’s only that vituperation loses much of its luster when it’s directed at someone you know to be a thoughtful and interesting and good person.
But then again, thoughtful, interesting, and good people can do and say thoughtless, boring and bad things, so something more substantial needs to be said in defense of the writer whose article inflamed an imbroglio that, in its intensity, dwarfed the controversies over the senior gift and the proposed fraternity. What needs to be added, then, is this: that so very many of the critics of Anna Kaladish’s piece violently misread it, attacking an argument that wasn’t there and ignoring the one that was; and that many of these same people had the gall to condemn what 50 years ago would have been the unquestioned consensus of the Catholic faithful as wicked moralizing, all while engaging in real, presumptuous moralizing of their own. With due respect to friends of mine whose comments I have in mind, the response to Miss Kaladish’s piece was, by and large, beneath the dignity of a university that is supposed to be a home for independent thinkers.
The very title of the offending work, “Collective amnesia amongst the female UD populace,” should have been a tip-off that what was to come was not going to be wholly serious. Indeed, the piece begins by absurdly suggesting that the class of 2013 give as its parting gift “a stand on the Mall with all shapes and varieties of long skirts to be doled out to needy passersby,” and it ends by entreating readers to ask themselves before leaving their room each morning, “‘Did I remember to put on pants today?’”
So the piece is bookended by obvious humor. In between were several other jokes (“What our newspaper needs is Mall à la Modesty!”) and instances of comical hyperbole (leggings are “obscene” and an “atrocity”); no fewer than three exclamation points that reflect and effect a light tone; and the confession by the author that what she had written was a “rambling tirade” that a reader needs patience to get all the way through.
People, this girl was not writing with the severity of a 19th-century pope, let alone with the worldview of an Iranian ayatollah. Take a chill pill; she doesn’t hate you if you wear leggings.
I should acknowledge an objection that will be raised in response to this recapitulation: that maybe the piece came off as funny to those of us who know Miss Kaladish, but that those who do not know her could not have been expected to perceive her gay tone so readily. This is a fair protest. We who can read her writing with her inimitable inflection in our ears and her silly gestures in our mind’s eye were not going to mistake a clause like “harried young ladies dashing about in pursuit of knowledge” as pretentious – but I cannot get upset with someone who, not knowing her, did find it haughty. I can only assure this person that the author is not that, and ask that the clause be taken in the context of an article permeated by a light spirit.
What was Miss Kaladish arguing, when we leave aside the jokes and the wordplay? She claimed that there are certain unseemly fashion trends that some women at the University of Dallas have adopted. Her two specific targets, leggings and short shorts, are not modest and wholesome, she believes, and UD women ought to reject them, “for the sake of their beauty and the benefit of everyone who has to look at them.” The author’s allegiance, clearly, lay with the good, the true and the beautiful, which are the most Christian of things.
Why does she object to women wearing leggings as pants? It is because “no mature and self-respecting individual wishes to see so distinctly the contours of [one’s] derrière.” In other words, when a woman wears leggings with little or nothing covering her backside, the shape of her butt stands out loud and clear. This is what tight clothing necessarily does; it displays the curvature of the body precisely – legs, butt and breasts alike. (Indeed, the difference between being clothed in this fashion and being stark naked can sometimes be one only of color.) The author ought to have given some space to explaining just why it is problematic for a woman to dress like this around campus, but perhaps she assumed that her audience would implicitly understand.
She had in mind, I think, the wisdom of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, helpfully cited by one of the online commenters:
“2521. Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.
“2522. Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.”
Are spandex leg sleeves discreet? Do short shorts refuse to unveil what should remain hidden? Do these types of clothing help a man to look at a woman in conformity with her dignity as a person? To ask these questions is to answer them.
So I think, anyway. At the very least, it has to be agreed that it was not wickedly judgmental of Miss Kaladish to draw lines that exclude certain sorts of clothing from polite company. For one thing, making a judgment is not the same as being “judgmental.” As a student noted online, “Jesus … flipped tables in the temple and gave us ‘admonish the sinner’ as one of the spiritual works of mercy.” To deny someone the right to criticize – in a humorous fashion! – behavior she believes to be immodest is verily to deny her the right to live out her Christian faith. Moreover, it is to deny a culture its right to preserve its own identity. For as another of the best online commenters put it, “[This] is what cultures do. They rule things in, and they rule things out.”
Most everything dishonest and vapid about the response to Miss Kaladish’s article can be found in last week’s letter to the editor, which, as they say, was clever but not wise. Having no insight to contribute to the discussion, our letter writers chose instead, mockingly and sneeringly, to slay the straw-women of their own minds. Yes, these writers stand athwart the evil, MRS-degree-seeking long-skirts who probably don’t want women to leave the kitchen. Thank goodness for these heroic defenders of Progress.
Our letter writers, alas, cannot read quite well enough to understand what Miss Kaladish meant when she wrote, “I do not own a single long skirt”; but at least, unlike others of the writer’s critics, they didn’t suggest that she was afraid to be seen in any clothing not long and flowing – a dirty claim, to be sure, but also rather a foolish one, for anyone who has ever seen the author.
What we’ve learned from the 108-comment-long online debate spurred by the article is that the cultural revolution has succeeded so completely that to criticize short shirts and the wearing of leggings as pants is to earn the ire of a substantial part of a conservative, Catholic student body. Do this, and people who have never spoken to you will imply that you’re paving your own path to Hell, modestly clad though you be. People who take your jokes hyper-literally will ignore entirely your serious remarks. Perhaps worst of all, people who know nothing of your background will condescendingly tell you how hard a time you’re going to have of it in the “real world,” assuming, I guess, that your parents had the darndest time trying to choose between Seton or the Angelicum for your high-school homeschool curriculum, before they ultimately decided instead to relocate to Massachusetts so that you could attend the Trivium School. (Hint hint, this is not Miss Kaladish’s story. Not in the least.)
If we are going to call ourselves “independent thinkers,” then we have got to be able to let a girl write an article without freaking out at her, without feeling the need to insult, defame and demonstrate. Education (especially liberal education) is supposed to free us from our passions, as Clarence Thomas said in his convocation address at Hillsdale College in 1994: “It can take us beyond the emotional confines of our passions, beyond the security of our preferences and to the boundless vistas of intellectual growth that only come from the calm, patient inquiry of our rational capacities – to think rather than just feel, to act methodically rather than react predictably.”
The next time someone at the newspaper writes something you don’t like, don’t be “offended.” Go find him or her, sit down in the Cap Bar, and have a discussion. Whether minds are changed or not, hearts will glow, love and reason will win, and the devil of fury will be kept in check.